American Horror Story: Double Feature (Death Valley) – Season Review
*This Review Does Contain Spoilers*
Although Red Tide struggled to end on a strong note, there was still hope that American Horror Story: Double Feature’s second part, Death Valley, could deliver unforgettable sci-fi horror. However, it feels like series creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk spent too much time reading internet alien conspiracies as Death Valley is just an amalgamation of historic conspiracies that make for an uncreative story.
Death Valley is almost a blend of American Horror Story and its sister show American Crime Story as it contains some historic DNA that make it feel partially like a biopic. Although its story is fiction, Death Valley uses historic figures and events to create its narrative as we see Dwight D. Eisenhower (Neal McDonough) be forced into a morally compromising position after an extraterrestrial invasion. Some American Horror Story seasons have had some basis, but Death Valley is the first to really riff on American history like this and although some story and performance aspects work, it leans too heavily on historic conspiracy to get by.
McDonough as Eisenhower is probably Death Valley’s greatest character and performance as he excellently brings out the moral struggle that Eisenhower faces with this dilemma that really tests his patriotism. With this extraterrestrial force coming to Earth to keep their species alive, Eisenhower is forced into a dilemma where he trades the lives of Americans in order to give the aliens experimental test subjects in return for technology that will keep them ahead of the Russians. It’s a great moral dilemma that plays into motivations and ideology stemming from the Red Scare and a desperation for progress and makes the fallout of this decision carry out heavy implications for humanity’s future. Eisenhower grappling with all this is throughout the years is intriguing to watch as the aliens begin to deepen their roots in Earth and his life. McDonough’s performance really begins to create a more personal connection to the events happening and is one of the only aspects of Death Valley that doesn’t feel too tethered to history or conspiracy.
Aside from another great performance from Sarah Paulson as Eisenhower’s wife Mamie and a very memorable Richard Nixon portrayal from Craig Sheffer, the only thing that stands out about Death Valley’s trip to the past is its fictionalized history and it’s not for good reasons. When it comes to the black and white cinematography and old cinema style, it’s an excellent choice for evoking the vibes of 50’s sci-fi alien films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Also, certain early moments that lean into history and historical conspiracy, like Amelia Earhart (Lily Rabe) being taken by the aliens and this deal being the reason for alien conspiracies throughout the years, are good because they’re small and feel more inspired by history rather than completely rip from it – unlike the rest of Death Valley.
Eventually Death Valley leans too much on its historical connections becomes an uncreative, uninteresting mess that takes things too far. As the aliens become more ingrained into American politics, the way they have an impact in things like the persistence of the Vietnam War and JFK’s assassination feels super cliché and comes off very lazy. Basically, the answer to anything remarkably bad that happened in history involving the US is that it was because of the aliens, and it makes the overall story so unoriginal and boring because of how tiresome that answer becomes. Even worse is that this series feels like it spent too much time reading up on internet conspiracy theories as the inclusion of lizard-people, which goes absolutely nowhere, and the idea that the aliens were behind things like 9/11 and Watergate only adds to the blandness of Death Valley. For a series that’s been so great at crafting original stories, Death Valley represents a low point for American Horror Story in its storytelling and not even seeing things play out in the present helps.
Each episode is split in half with the first half taking us to the past, while the second half bring us into the present to see a group of four friends become a part of the alien experiments. Personally, this is a terrible way to tell this story as it totally breaks the momentum of both parts, and this story would be much more digestible if the past was given the first two episode and then present story followed in the second two. It would’ve made Mamie still being around in the present a little more shocking and impactful than it is, and the present storyline equally suffers from leaning too heavy into conspiracy.
The whole thing with the moon-landing being filmed by Stanley Kubrick and seeing notable faces like Steve Jobs in the alien’s containment area might as well be ripped right from some internet forum. The characters are also pretty bland in them being stereotypical California college kids that don’t gain any more depth as they all become impregnated by the aliens in the hopes of spawning the perfect hybrid. Their stories overall aren’t that interesting and the incredibly pretentious and unremarkable messaging about human reliance on technology that stem from Kendall’s (Kaia Gerber) remarks about technology unfortunately fits nicely with Red Tide’s overt messaging that leaves a sour taste in your mouth rather than spark real thought.
The only thing really great about the present-day storyline is how it continues to showcase the great visual horror shown in the past. The effect of the head explosions the aliens cause is crazy and makes them instantly terrifying. The imagery of the pregnancies, specifically with the men being pregnant, really leaves a chilling impact of how their bodies are no longer theirs. This imagery is made even more skin-crawling with how Kendall’s body is turned into a birthing machine after producing a worthy hybrid. Even the look of Theta (Angelica Ross), a human/alien hybrid doctor, is really rad and there’s a lot of great visual horror that Death Valley brings.
Unfortunately, Death Valley’s strengths in its visual effects and performances aren’t enough to make its unoriginal and uncreative alien story worthwhile making it easily one of the weakest American Horror Story seasons to date and a disappointing end to Double Feature.